The push-up is a foundational bodyweight exercise to develop upper body strength, muscle mass, and pressing performance. Strength, power, and fitness athletes can integrate this bodyweight exercise and its variations within training programs fairly easily, making the push-up a versatile movement to master.
In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the push-up, including:
- Push-Up Form and Technique
- Benefits of the Push-Up
- Muscles Worked by the Push-Up
- Who Should Do the Push-Up
- Push-Up Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Push-Up Variations and Alternatives
How to Perform the Push Up: Step-By-Step Guide
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform a standard push-up. Note, there is a wide assortment of push-up variations, each with slight differences in grip width and angles.
1.Assume a Plank Position
To perform the push-up, start at the top of the plank position with the back flat. The arms should be fully extended with the hands directly underneath the shoulder joint. The feet and thighs should be pressed actively together.
Often, beginners will place their hands too far forwards in front of them. Be sure to place the hands under the shoulder joint, maybe even slightly back towards your hips.
Coach’s Tip: Assume a plank with the torso rigid and back flat. The head should remain in a neutral position.
2.Set Your Back
While in the plank position, actively pull your shoulder blades together to create tension in the upper back. This will help stabilize the shoulder girdle and ensure proper stability in the lowering phase of the push-up.
Set the back by pulling the shoulder blades towards the hips and extending the upper back. Be sure to not let the hips sag or lower back hyperextend while in this position.
3.Pull Yourself to the Floor
Once you are set, think about pulling your elbows to the back, similar to a row position. This will help activate the upper back muscles and provide you with stability as you approach the bottom of the push-up.
Do not let you head or shoulders slouch forwards towards the floor. Rather, think about pulling your sternum in between your hands.
Coach’s Tip: The thighs, hips, and chest should all make contact on the floor at the same time. If these are out of order or do not occur at the same time, this may suggest sagging of the hips and/or hyperextension in the lower back.
4.Reach Into the Floor
Once you have touched the floor, press yourself away and upwards by trying to reach your hands into the floor. By thinking about reaching, rather than pushing, you can reframe the movement to have the body find stability and strength from the upper back.
Push yourself away from the floor, and focus on keeping tension in the upper back.
Coach’s Tip: Stay rigid in the torso and be sure to not let the hips sag in the upwards movement of the push-up.
3 Benefits of the Push Up
Below are three (3) benefits of the push-up that coaches and athletes can expect when integrating the push-up into training programs.
1. Chest and Triceps Hypertrophy
The push-up is a foundational upper body hypertrophy exercise to develop the chest, triceps, and anterior shoulder. This exercise can be done nearly anywhere with only bodyweight, yet can induce serious amounts of muscle building benefits for beginners and advanced lifters alike. The addition of tempos, pauses, high volume sets, and other variations can all make the push-up a staple exercise for all training programs.
2. Increase Upper Body Strength
Increasing upper body strength is key for most athletes and lifters. The push up can lay the foundation for a bigger bench press (powerlifters), more muscle mass (fitness athletes and bodybuilders), and increasing upper body and overhead strength and performance (weightlifters).
Beginners can use the push-up and it’s variations to establish bodily control and strength necessary for more advanced exercises. Meanwhile, more advanced lifters can integrate variations like plyometric push-ups to further enhance rate of force production and speed strength.
3. Scapular and Core Stability
The push-up requires core stability and upper back/scapular control to provide support for the pressing movement in the push-up. Similar to building a stronger bench press, the upper back and core must work in unison with the triceps, chest, and shoulders to produce a strong and stable press.
The push-up can be used to develop such qualities in all level lifters and/or reinforce spinal alignment and bodily control in the press.
Muscles Worked – Push Up
The push up is an upper body bodyweight exercise that targets the chest, triceps, and anterior shoulders. In addition, the push up can reinforce proper core and posterior shoulder stability. Below are the muscle groups that are primarily responsible for muscular contractions during the push up.
- Chest (Pectorals)
- Anterior Shoulder
- Rhomboids and Scapular Stabilizers
Who Should Perform Push-Ups?
Below is a lift of populations that can benefit from the inclusion of push-ups in training programs.
Strength and Power Athletes
Strength and power athletes can integrate push-ups to increase muscle mass, enhance force production (plyometrics), and improve shoulder stability.
- Powerlifting and Strongman Athletes: Powerlifters and strength athletes can use push ups throughout warm-ups, primer drills, and accessory blocks. In doing so, you can increase training volume and muscle hypertrophy without high amounts of joint loading and stress. Additionally, the push up can be a good movement to continually train to help maintain shoulder health and integrity.
- Olympic Weightlifters: Adding the push-up into training programs can help weightlifters increase upper body strength and muscle mass. This is key for lifters looking to increase lean body mass, move up a weight class, and/or those who have issues with elbows extension and overhead strength.
Competitive CrossFit and Fitness Athletes
Competitive fitness and CrossFit athletes can use the push up to build greater upper body strength and muscle endurance. The push up will assist these athletes during gymnastics and bodyweight exercises like dips and burpees.
Lastly, the push up can help to develop triceps strength and mass, which is necessary for movements like thrusters, push presses, Olympic lifts, handstand push ups, and more.
Sports Training and General Fitness
The push up can develop general upper body strength, hypertrophy, and help to reinforce proper shoulder, core, and total body stability.
Training the push up can also help athletes with limited upper body strength develop greater abilities to perform other pressing movements like bench and overhead pressing.
Push-Up Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations
Below are four (4) sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to properly program the push-up specific to the training goal.
Note, that the below guidelines are simply here to offer coaches and athletes loose recommendations for programming.
The push up is a foundational bodyweight exercise that should be mastered prior to increasing loading and/or progressing into more advanced variations.
- Start with 2-3 sets of 6-8 repetitions at controlled tempos with pauses and holds at various ranges of motion.
- Add a variety of tempos and holds to increase stability, scapular coordination, and address breakdowns in technique.
The push-up can be a great exercise to build upper body hypertrophy once proper form has been developed. Lifters can use bodyweight or add additional loading to the movement to train within the below hypertrophy ranges.
- 3-5 sets of 8-12 or 12-15 repetitions with a moderate to heavy load.
- It is important to perform repetitions in a fluid movement, focusing on keeping tension on the triceps, upper/middle back, and chest.
- Additional loading can be used, such as; weighted vests, plates, and or manual resistance.
Training for maximal strength with the push-up can be done in both beginner and more advanced lifters. Stronger lifters can load the push up with high amounts of external load, such as plate on the back.
- Beginner and intermediate athletes can perform 3-5 sets of 2-5 repetitions with bodyweight or challenging loads.
- While this is doable for stronger athletes, it can become cumbersome to get into position to load hundreds of pounds of weight into their backs for heavy set of push ups.
- Nonetheless, lifters can train strength within the 2-5 rep range for a few sets.
Training for muscular endurance can be done with the push-up simply by having the athlete/individual train in higher volumes with less rest.
- 3-4 sets of 15-20 repetitions with light to moderate loads with shorter rest periods.
- Be sure to perform the repetitions in the deepest, fullest of ranges at controlled tempos. Additionally, be sure to minimize full elbow extension/lockout to maximize muscular development.
4 Push-Up Variations
Below are four (4) push up variations to increase muscular power, stimulate chest and triceps muscle growth, and improve upper body muscular endurance.
1. Plyometric Push-Up
The plyometric push-up is an explosive push up variation that can increase the rate of force production of the triceps, pectorals, and anterior shoulder. Performing these can help to stimulate faster twitch muscle fibers and maximize overall upper body power.
2. Handstand Push-Up (HSPU)
The handstand push-up is a highly progressed version of the push up. This push-up variation targets the shoulders, triceps, and upper chest due to the vertical pressing movement.
This can be done to enhance overall pressing strength, reinforce triceps strength and lockout performance, and develop upper back stability and strength.
3. Close Grip Push-Up
Close grip push-ups are done to increase loading on the triceps and limit shoulder strain. For lifters who are looking to isolate the triceps more and/or improve lockout strength, close-grip push ups can be done.
Lifters who are looking to minimize shoulder strain can use close grip push ups to keep the shoulder in a more neutral position.
4. Band Assisted Push-Up
The band assisted push-up is a good variation to use with individuals who may lack the strength needed to perform a strict push up.
Unlike kneeling and other regressed push up variations, the band assisted push up reinforces necessary core stability and builds muscular strength at the exact angles needed for the push up.
2 Push-Up Alternatives
Below are two (2) push up alternatives that can be used to improve strength and hypertrophy of the upper body.
The dip is a bodyweight movement that can be performed on straight bars, V-bars, and rings. This exercise places the lifter in a more vertical position than the push up, slightly shifting demands to the triceps and lower pectorals.
2. Bench Press
The bench press can be a valuable exercise to establish fundamental push up strength and/or overload the push up movement with high amounts of external loading. Some individuals may lack the basic strength to perform a push up, in which the bench press can be used to increase triceps, chest, and pressing strength.
Other lifters who are more advanced and are looking to overload the chest and triceps with more weight can perform bench presses to maximize pressing strength and upper body mass.
Build a Better Push Up!
We littered this push up guide with some of the best push up content out there on the web. That said, here are two more staple push up training articles for those of you looking to take your push up game to the next level.
Feature image By Flamingo Image / Shutterstock.